Newly elected congressman Ross Spano recently acknowledged that he may have improperly funded his campaign, saying he didn't know it was illegal to use personal loan proceeds as if it was his own money.
But Spano's financial disclosures from 2012 raise similar questions about the source of money that paid for the campaign that year in which he won his first elective office, his District 59 state House seat from east Hillsborough County.
Meanwhile, Spano's situation has attracted attention from Democrats who will take control of the U.S. House in January.
Local Democrats have organized an email campaign to urge incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that Spano not be seated. Pelosi told reporters recently that incoming Democratic House leadership is "tracking" the Spano case, along with a North Carolina case involving apparent absentee ballot fraud.
The House has exclusive power to decide whether to seat any member. Pelosi's office didn't respond this week for further comment on her remarks, quoted in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story.
In 2012, Spano faced a tough primary and general election to win his state House seat, which he held until he decided to run for Congress this year.
He loaned his campaign $51,000 between June and November 2012 and he and his wife contributed another $1,500, money that proved crucial to his victory.
Most of the loans, $41,000, came before the Aug. 14 primary, and was about two-thirds of his primary spending. He defeated fellow Republican Joe Wicker by a scant 175 votes.
Spano also won the general election narrowly. His total loans amounted to about a fifth of his total campaign spending of $242,158.
But the financial disclosure forms he filed as a candidate and after winning his seat showed no liquid assets of any kind – not even a checking account – which could have supplied the cash for those loans. (Accounts containing $1,000 or more must be disclosed.)
His candidate's disclosure form showed that except for the value of his interest in his law firm, which is set at $750,000, he had more liabilities than assets, for a total net worth of $731,368.
But he also reported more than $360,000 income from the firm for 2011 and 2012.
In general, a candidate may use only his own personal money to contribute or loan to his campaign in amounts exceeding contribution limits. Money in a joint account with a spouse is also legal as long as the money wasn't put in the account by the spouse for the purpose of funding the campaign.
But accounting experts say the money Spano loaned his campaign could legally have come from his law firm's accounts — if he left his income from the firm in those accounts while making withdrawals as needed. In that case, the money could be reflected on his financial disclosure as part of the value of the firm.
That's not exactly how Spano's spokeswoman described the situation, however, even as she said it was Spano's own money, in accordance with the law.
Spokeswoman Sandi Poreda said, without elaborating, that it came from "money he and his wife saved from distributions taken from the business over the previous year or so."
Spano's campaign also paid his law firm $21,886 for advertising, office supplies, travel and printing.
Spano's campaign treasurer for part of the 2012 campaign was Carey D. Carreno of Valrico, a long-time friend and business associate.
Carreno was one of two individuals who loaned Spano money this year that he apparently injected into his congressional race, possibly in violation of campaign finance law.
In this year's race, Spano borrowed $110,000 from Carreno and $70,000 from someone identified only as Karen Hunt, and loaned his campaign $167,000.
Spano acknowledged earlier this month that may have been illegal.
Under both state and federal campaign finance law, a loan made to a candidate with the intent of providing money for his campaign must be considered a campaign contribution and is subject to campaign contributions limits. But the loans Spano received from Carreno and Hunt for his 2018 campaign far exceeded the legal limits on campaign contributions.
Carreno has also been involved in the 2018 campaign in other ways.
He notified campaign treasurer Jamie Jodoin she was fired when Spano acknowledged his campaign financing may have violated federal campaign finance law. Jodoin denied she was to blame, saying she didn't know the money Spano loaned his campaign came from loans.
Carreno also has had a hand in hiring staff for Spano's congressional office, according to a Politico report this week, although that story also quoted Poreda as saying Carreno "has not been involved in any official capacity in the DC hiring process."
In 2012, as he was running for the state House seat, Spano may have been experiencing financial difficulty.
His home was foreclosed in 2010, and he was sued by two banks over consumer debt in 2009 and 2010, settling the cases for $15,565.
According to campaign finance reports, the $51,000 he loaned his 2012 campaign was never repaid.
Under state campaign finance law, campaign accounts close soon after the election, with any leftover money disposed of according to prescribed alternatives including charitable gifts, and debts to the candidate written off.
Federal campaigns, including Spano's 2018 congressional race, are different. The account can remain open indefinitely, and Spano can continue to raise money for his re-election and to repay himself for the loans he gave the 2018 campaign.
Poreda has said Spano plans to pay off his loans from Carreno and Hunt by selling his law firm.